As senior night festivities began Tuesday at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School's baseball field, there was a palpable void: Only five of the team's six seniors took the field.
No. 19, Travis Gaines, has been recovering from a spinal cord injury at Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville.
"It just didn't feel right just having five of the six," senior Grant Herald said.
That quickly changed when the announcer asked the crowd to turn its attention to the third-base line, where Gaines, clad in his Dunbar baseball uniform, was waiting to surprise his teammates.
It was his first visit to the school since April 2, when he hit a sandbar while diving into the ocean during a spring break trip with members of the team in Destin, Fla. His family has said he has limited movement below his chest.
Gaines took the field flanked by his sister, Megan Gaines; his mother and stepfather, Rhonda and Robert Keeney; and his father and stepmother, Keith and Nici Gaines.
Each of the seniors had made an audio recording about their time on the baseball team, and the recording was played over the loudspeaker during the ceremonies.
In his, Gaines urged the team to "just keep hitting the ball. ... Keep the streak alive."
"Always have fun," he said. "It's just a game."
Joey Avioli, who has played baseball with Gaines since Little League, said he was "absolutely shocked" by Gaines' unexpected visit.
"It means the world to me," Avioli said. "I couldn't fight back the tears when I saw him."
Along with other senior teammates, Gaines accepted a collage of photos from Coach Larry Poynter, then he took the field for the national anthem.
He posed for photos with crowds of friends, then made his way into the dugout.
Gaines said he wanted to "try to see as many people as I can, while I can."
After the game, he was to return to Frazier Rehab. He expects to be released May 23 and plans to attend Dunbar's graduation ceremonies May 24.
After that, he will continue to receive outpatient therapy at Frazier five days a week, his father said.
"He's always upbeat, always looks at the bright side of things," Keith Gaines said.
Robert Keeney said his stepson pushes himself during therapy sessions, often doing an extra repetition of exercises beyond what is asked.
"He takes that from his baseball," Keeney said. "He's our hero."
As Travis Gaines watched his teammates warm up before their game against Owen County, he called out encouragement to them.
He said he plans to attend Centre College and would like to study sports medicine.
"Let the world know," he said, "I'm OK."
Karla Ward: (859) 231-3314. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.